Southern cities puzzle over top spot on crime list

Southern cities dominated the FBI's latest per capita crime rankings, with Tuscaloosa, Ala., tops in overall crime, and Pine Bluff, Ark., Greenville, N.C., and Jackson, Tenn., among the leaders in violent and property offenses.

But does this mean Southerners should pack up and move to safer cities, or is it more of an image problem for Dixie chambers of commerce?

Depends on your perspective, say experts who have long questioned how much stock to put in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.

For starters, the reporting system is voluntary and far from uniform. And there are glaring holes.

Such places as Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis are conspicuously absent from the latest report, issued last week.

That's because not all cities met the FBI's reporting criteria, and some simply missed the deadline.

"You have to be careful paying attention to these national crime rate figures, because it's not the best way of figuring out how safe a town is," said Bob Sigler, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama.

His hometown of Tuscaloosa is a perfect example, Sigler says, topping the overall crime index largely because of its number of thefts. The worst offenders? The nearly 5,000 people who drove off without paying for gas. Tuscaloosa police have a policy of reporting nearly every incident of illegal activity.

Myrtle Johnson knows her hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., a university city of about 55,000 residents, isn't perfect. She's been burglarized twice in the last year. The last intruder even took the .38-caliber pistol she bought for protection.

But worst violent crime index of any metropolitan area in the nation?

"Really?" the 55-year-old social worker says with genuine surprise. "We have a lot of bad elements, as do most cities, so we do have our share of problems. However, it's a good place to live."

Though it ranked just behind Tuscaloosa in overall crime, Pine Bluff had the dubious distinction of showing up in the top five of six of the nine crime categories, including murder, rape, aggravated assault and burglary.

Top five

The property crime category was a Southern sweep, with Tuscaloosa, Miami, Pine Bluff, Greenville, N.C., and Laredo, Texas, making up the top five. The report for 2000 covers metro areas based on the number of crimes per 100,000 residents. The rankings had only a slightly less Southern slant in 1995 -- the last time the report was released -- and included many of the same cities.

Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck says the South's large presence in the rankings could simply reflect a regional reluctance to let the small things slide.

He remembers a news report about statistics showing that the overall crime index in his sleepy hometown of Tallahassee was higher than New York's.

That's because larcenies accounted for 60 percent of the index crimes, and people in New York might be less likely to report a minor crime than someone in Tallahassee.

"Southerners are more punitive about crime; that is, they're more inclined to see it punished," Kleck says. "And you can't see it punished if you don't report it to the cops. ... It's where a lot of the variability in crime rates are."